By Lana Koehler
When I first met Michelle Houts, I was introducing her at an SCBWI Conference and had trouble remembering the pronunciation of her name (Houts, like “out”). She was gracious and patient with me. A few years later, we were both authors at the Cincinnati Books By the Bank and she came up and congratulated me as though we were long-lost friends.
Since then, we have maintained contact and she is gracious once again, this time to share her insights as a prolific writer. Her new book, Sea Glass Summer, has received a coveted starred Kirkus review.
I’m pleased to welcome Michelle to our Six Pens blog!
Michelle Houts is an author, editor, kidlit enthusiast, writing coach, and preservationist. She writes fiction and nonfiction for the picture book through middle-grader reader. Michelle’s debut middle-grade novel The Beef Princess of Practical County won an IRA Children’s Book Award for Intermediate Fiction. Winterfrost was named a Bank Street Best of 2014 with Outstanding Merit. She has written the biographies of a ground-breaking woman baseball player, a mid-century modern artist, and the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail. 2019 will see the release of two new picture books. Sea Glass Summer (Candlewick Press) is illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline and is available May 14th. Silent Swoop: An Owl, an Egg, and a Warm Shirt Pocket, illustrated by Deb Hoeffner (Dawn Publishing) tells the true tale of a Great Horned Owl rescued as an egg releases September 1st.
Michelle started the 52 Letter Challenge, encourage letter writers of all ages and all over the world to write and send a letter a week for a year. Find out more about Michelle and the challenge at www.michellehouts.com and on Instagram and Twitter @mhoutswrites .
1. What inspired you to write your first book?
A longtime friend and English teacher read a letter I wrote to her and said, “You know you’re a novelist, right?” I didn’t know. I’d dabbled in picture books, submitted a little, collected a few rejections, and joined SCBWI. I’d never thought I could write a novel, but this person’s opinion meant a lot to me. I set out to tell a story that only I could tell.
2. Who are some authors you admire?
The writings of Katherine Patterson, Cynthia Rylant, and Natalie Babbitt have inspired me immensely. I’ve more recently studied the works of J.R.R.Tolkien and other YA and MG fantasy writers and found so much to admire.
3. How did you get involved in Ohio University Press’ series, “Biographies for Young Readers”?
Here’s one for the books: It was all because of rejection. I submitted a picture book manuscript to the Ohio University Press, and the publisher herself called to turn me down. But, she said she’d been pondering the idea of a middle-grade biography series and she was looking for a middle-grade author to write the first book. With a couple of middle-grade books under my belt already, I agreed to the task. Since then, I have not only written the inaugural title and the fifth title in Ohio University Press’s Biographies for Young Readers series, but I’ve signed on as series editor where I’ve had the pleasure of editing six more titles.
4. Tell us about your new book, Sea Glass Summer. How did it come about?
Several years ago, I became part of a small writers group that met annually in Maine. As a land-locked Ohio girl, I was delighted with the idea sea glass. The very notion that I might find a small piece of history lying on the pebble beach - a story waiting to be discovered – was fascinating. On the plane from Maine to Ohio, I jotted some notes for a picture book. Of course, that was more than five years ago. Nothing moves quickly in the publishing world.
5. Tell us about your Little Red Schoolhouse!
I live in rural Ohio, where the landscape is dotted with old barns , sheds, and abandoned one-room schoolhouses. A few years ago, my family bought a farm with a schoolhouse (turned farm shed) on the corner. It was solid, but in need of much repair. I would have been so sad to see it crumble. Since it was just a mile from my home, I decided it would be the perfect writing studio. Three years ago, the renovations were complete, and now, every morning I pinch myself that I get to work in such a wonderful space.
6. What kind of books do you like to read?
That’s a question I would have answered differently a year or two ago. I have always read widely in the genres I write: picture books, middle grade fiction and biographies. But this past year I’ve made it goal to expand my reading repertoire. I’ve read some YA science fiction and some middle-grade fantasy, choosing books that I probably would never have chosen in the past, and as a result, I’ve grown as a reader and a writer.
7. What book has influenced you the most?
Recently, it was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read it twice and have sections highlighted that I go back to often. It has helped me make sense of the creative life. As a child Little Women fascinated me. I come from a family of girls, I love historical fiction, and I wanted to be Jo March.
8. What was your most unusual or funny experience as a writer?
Research often takes us places we never expected to go and sometimes we unearth treasures. While researching artist Charley Harper for the book Count the Wings, I found some of his earliest illustration, done for Ford Times Magazine in the 1950s and 1960s. I was particularly fond of his paintings of colorful kites for an article by a new, unknown writer. Her name? Jane Yolen. Weeks later I was with Jane in Massachusettes and was able to bring her a long-forgotten piece from her past.
9. What work do you wish you had written? Why?
I wish I had written Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. That book, in my opinion, has everything a great story should have. Depth, beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, suspense, humor, and a thought-provoking premise. I like rereading it every few years just to relive the experience of meeting the Tucks and contemplating a life well lived.
10. What is one piece of advice that you would give to writers?
We hear so often: To be a successful, you must write every day. That might be true for some, but I have found that for many writers, especially those just starting out, life gets in the way of daily writing. If you have a day job, young children, aging parents, teenagers, or any number of life circumstances, sometimes you have to write when you can. And sometimes you can’t. You’ll make yourself and those around you miserable if you are beating yourself up for not writing on a given day/week/month. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission not to write. That doesn’t mean you allow excuses. You know the difference between procrastination and dealing with life’s important demands. Write often. Write passionately. Write when you can. And don’t torture yourself when you can’t.
Short and Sweet:
Pantser or Plotter? Fiction pantser. Nonfiction plotter.
Guilty Food Pleasure? Authentic Chicago pizza
Favorite Hobby? Hiking
Dog or Cat person? The cat on my lap would be very offended if I said dog. Cat it is.
Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)? J.K. Rowling
Do you do your best work in the Morning, Afternoon, or Evening? You forgot Night. Night.